14. John Henry
(traditional, arr. Woody Guthrie/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., BMI)
Track 14 – John Henry (MASTER MA 10)
There really is nothing much one can say about the quintessential African-American ballad, the story of a man pitted against a steam engine, of dignity and heroism, indeed, of one man standing against the gods. Is it not the fate of those who challenge the gods that even if they prevail, in the end they must die?
“John Henry,” the stuff of myth, of great deeds well and nobly done, is literally known throughout the United States, among whites as well as blacks. (Meade, Spottswood, and Meade, pp. 61-62, list more than twenty recordings by white musicians, not counting those who recorded “race” records.) Scholars have traced its origins to at least three states, most recently to Alabama. University of Georgia professor John Garst makes a persuasive case for that state and one John Henry Dabney as the original John Henry. Garst wrote that Dabney, “an ex-slave from Copiah County,Mississippi, is said to have been driving steel at Coosa Mountain Tunnel on the Columbus & Western Railway (Central of Georgia) when he raced a steam drill outside nearby Oak Mountain Tunnel in 1887. These locations are about fifteen miles east of Birmingham.”
Guthrie takes the vocal lead, Houston the guitar lead, and together they harmonize on this epic ballad celebrating man’s triumph over machine.